Picking up pennies

An ancient and shrunkened woman passed by me as I walked into old town.  She was one of those elfin older people with hair which ressembles a mature dandelion.  At any moment, the wind could blow and cascade her to the fields.  Before my eyes she could turn to seed.  She was stooped and walked slowly.  She had need for a cane, the industrialized aluminum model with a thick black rubber tip.  It wasn’t the type of cane you pick up at the specialty store intended to make an older person appear jaunty.  She hasn’t been referred to as jaunty since Kennedy announced the nation’s intent to land a man on the moon.  And although her age and appearance made her noteworthy, it’s not why I noticed her.  I noticed her because she stopped to pick up a coin from the sidewalk.  Her movements are no longer graceful.    Picking up the coin took time.  She toddled and grimaced before plucking up her new find and putting it in her coat pocket.  She took a moment to push herself upright.  Had I been closer, I would have helped her.  It was like watching an accident.  You see it coming but everything moves into slow motion and your feet grow roots, your reactions stick.  Before you can move, it is over.  I feel guilty I didn’t get there in time to help. 

For some reason, I can’t get this little old woman out of my mind.  Why would a person expend so much energy on a coin?  In the euro-zone we have 3 copper colored coins; a one cent, two cents, and five cents model.  I’m guessing this was the 5 cents coin.  I’m not sure the denomination mattered.  My bet, she would have done the same for a mere cent.  I have spent a week wondering why a frail person expends so much effort to pick up a 5 cents coin.  Was she raised with the Ben Franklinisms of “a penny saved is a penny earned”.  Did she live thru the depression and the war and now has the taste of want pasted to her tongue?  Or did she need that five cents.  Is it perhaps a handy addition to her meager monthly pension.

The average pension in Slovakia is under 400 Euro per month.  This has made the news lately as Slovakia is asked, as a member of the European Union, to bail out Greece.  Greece is a country with an average pension of 1400 Euro per month.   You can argue the differences in cost of living between the two countries account for the differences in pensions, I think Slovakia gets a bit of a bad rap for not enthusiastically embracing the bail-out.  Given the modest living people eek out in Slovakia, funding a bail-out for a country which – on the surface – is much wealthier is a lot to ask.  And in this country where pensioners live off less than 400 Euro per month, risking a busted limb to pick up a 5 cent piece might not be as silly as I initially thought.

Today I ran two experiments.  First, I dropped a few 5 cent coins in front of my favorite cafe, went inside and watched people’s reactions through the window as I sipped my double espresso very, very slowly.  I thought the coin might be gone in 10 minutes.  I was particularly confident my experiment would end as I saw two different nuns approach.  But neither nun, nor a handful of street workers, nor some camera totting tourists, nor a man who might have picked up the coin but instead had to pick up his aging Cocker Spaniel took the bait.  Then a younger woman approached.  She was dressed in an old green jacket with fraying sleeves and a worn waist band.  As she grimaced, I could see she had a set of teeth which had seen better days.  She was my hope.  She walked purposefully – not the walk of a tourist.  She was on a mission.  But as she stepped over the 5 cent piece she glanced down, stopped, swiped it up and dropped it in her pocket without missing a beat.  Previously, a few people appeared to look down at the coin and considered grabbing it before moving on.  I think sometimes pride gets in the way of stooping to pick up the small change.  We worry what someone might think if they see us picking up a small coin.  But poverty and pride are rarely bedfellows.

My second experiment was to stop by Tesco to see what you can buy for five cents.  A kiwi is 9 cents.  Lemons are 29 cents per kilo (which is 2.2 pounds).  A nice crusty roll is 12 cents.  Potatos are 22 cents per kilo while cabbage is 19 cents for the same amount.  That 5 cents buys a serving of potatoes or a serving of cabbage.  Partner it with a second found coin, and we’re starting to make a dent in the cost of dinner.     

You can’t cure my version of need with a nickle.  My version of need is for the new mac book air which fits into a manila envelop or an up model pair of running shoes, leather seats in the new car.  My version of need is not really need, it’s my list of wants.  And I know half my wants will come home to visit but not stay and live.  They’ll be found in the goodwill bag in the garage.  Wants move to discards at an alarming rate in my life.  My wants and me eventually part ways.  My wants and needs are a nice set of things to want and need. 

In the past, I’ve thrown away change.  I’m not terribly proud of that fact.  But when you clean out the desk drawer and you find a nickle and 6 pennies – it’s sometimes the easiest way to deal with it.  Most times, I don’t even think twice before I toss it out.  But in this year of introspection, I’m trying to rethink old habits and get in touch with a world perspective broader than my lifelong rather limited view.  

To be honest, even after a week of pondering and thinking and two experiments, I’m not sure what to make of this.  For all I  know, this woman could be a wealthy dowager from the old Hapsburg empire.  Perhaps she’s a bit eccentric.  I rather doubt it, but anything is possible.  My best guess, she is exactly what she appeared to be.  An elderly woman of truely needy wants in which a 5 cent coin was an unexpected and welcome part of the solution.  In any event, of one fact I am quite sure.  I will never throw my change away again.  To do so would be to trivialize a little old lady, hunched and frail and struggling to pick up coins when she sees them.           



Categories: Insiders Bratislava

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